In the eyes of Gale Clifford, all students are similar. Some just need more care.
For the past 15 years, Clifford has been a paraprofessional working with special-needs children in the Belgrade School District. Twelve of those years were spent as an aide to Skylehr Stiles, a Belgrade graduate with cerebral palsy who recently won the Yes I Can! award from the Council for Exceptional Children.
“I always say I’ve been through school three times — once myself, once with my children and once with Skylehr,” she said.
Now it’s Cifford’s turn to receive an award. The Montana Office of Public Instruction has named her Paraprofessional of the Year.
“She represents the whole gamut of what paraprofessionals do in the school,” said Laurie Salo, special services director for the Belgrade School District. “She’s done it all. She really can identify with any situation. She’s always put the needs of the kids first, not what’s easiest for her. She’s willing to try anything.”
For instance, Salo said, Clifford and other high school teachers took the reins and arranged for special-needs high school kids to attend prom.
“They made dinner reservations, went out to dinner with the group, got a limo,” she said. They attended prom, they danced at prom. They just really went out of their way to make sure these kids’ junior and senior year was very special, to make sure they were a part of the school. She didn’t have to take her Saturday night to go to prom, but she did.”
Clifford, though, is humble, and said it’s “hard to talk about myself.”
Born on a ranch north of Belgrade, Clifford said her agricultural roots have stayed with her throughout her life. She talks a lot about patience and values.
“Growing up on a ranch, a job has to be done,” she said. “I don’t turn my back on something that needs to be done. You didn’t do that, because the work had to be done.”
Special needs students aren’t much different than any other student, she said. The same light bulb goes on when her students grasp an idea; it just may take more encouragement.
“You need more patience because the growth in life and academics takes longer,” she said. “Everything just takes longer with these students. You need patience to see the development.”
Every student, and everyone for that matter, has some type of disability or fault, Clifford said. The difference in her students’ cases is their “disabilities stand out a little more.”
Even so, the Gallatin Valley is full of folks with disabilities who are holding down jobs, paying rent and getting around on their own, Clifford said. Every kid deserves a shot and a chance to stand on their own, even if they aren’t going to be the next Bill Gates. And there aren’t too many Bill Gates’ in the world.
“They deserve an education and need to be accepted by society,” she said. “I see these kids functioning in society and they are good mannered and fit right in. It’s because of education they are at that point in life. They are living good, healthy lives right along with everyone else in society.”
People have approached her over the years and asked why so much time and money is spent on her students, she said. It makes her bristle when she hears it.
“Society puts money in these kids through education so they can be a part of society, rather than providing no education for them and be institutionalized,” she said. “As society puts money in the beginning of their life as education, it prevents having to take care of them later in life.”
Before her paraprofessional career at Belgrade, Clifford raised two children and worked as a substitute teacher. This year will be her last; she plans to spend her retirement with a new grandchild and the rest of her family. She said she is a history buff and wants to tour the state with her husband.
Even though she is turning in her school ID badge this summer, she said her career has been worth it.
“I like school and I like working with students,” she said. “I like seeing their progress and growth. I enjoy working with these children because they need the extra support to be successful. I find it rewarding. It’s my passion, you could say.”